If anything can change you, it’s tragedy. A tragic event can change your life forever simply by invading your thoughts so much that you have to face it and let it affect you. In Alexander Payne’s the Descendants, the process of losing someone can mean finding yourself. Set in the “paradise” that is Hawaii, Matt King, a detached lawyer that means well, recently finds out that his wife is in a coma she will never wake up from, and also that she had an affair. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Robert Forester star in this touching, sobering story.
Director Payne has always weaved stories that are humorous, but also genuinely uplifting and relative, and the Descendants is exactly that. In this film, Hawaii isn’t presented in the typical “heaven on earth” way, as Payne captures Hawaii from a beautiful viewpoint that doesn’t feel artificial or forced. The script, co-written by Payne as well, is genuinely moving and honest about loss, without being a complete downer, as there are humorous bits. With all the contradicting elements layered in the film, Payne really captures the growth of Matt King through what he loses.
George Clooney gives one of his best efforts in the Descendants, playing Matt King, a lawyer who’s life seems to be falling apart with the news of his dying wife, Elizabeth. On top of that, he has to become a real parent to his daughters and has to make a controversial decision on selling or keeping 25,000 acres of land in the island of Kauai. Clooney, as Matt, really captures the emotions of someone losing a loved one, while simultaneously being on-point as someone dealing with the monstrous headache of discovering his significant other’s affair. Clooney is quirky and hurt, angry and ballistic, handling this awkward dilemma and trying to uphold one of the toughest jobs in the world: family responsibility. This study of an everyday man dealing with loss is sincere, and Clooney finely captures the storm of emotions of someone dealing with grief.
The other players in the film also do a wonderful job, such as the two foul-mouthed daughters of Matt and Elizabeth, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. One other notable, although brief role, is that of Robert Forester, playing Elizabeth’s father, Scott. Scott is an old-school-tough individual that comes off as a bull, but Forester shows us his humanity and love for his daughter, in such a subtle manner that it burns.
The Descendants is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2011, adding another notch to Payne’s belt. Payne and company present us with an amazingly honest depiction of a man dealing with grief. The film finds a personal hell in paradise, and growth in a loss.
As good as the film is, some think that it’s not as good as Payne’s past efforts. Some may also find that some character choices may seem a little hard to swallow, making it hard to connect to the characters fully. At times, the characters actions feel a bit unnatural.
Up In the Air
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